WAPELLO — The West Liberty girls basketball team had to go the length of the court in under five seconds for a chance to force overtime or win Saturday night.
It came up short.
West Liberty found sophomore Finley Hall for a deep 3-point attempt, but a West Burlington defender got a hand on the attempt and the Falcons advanced to the Class 3A state tournament with a thrilling 47-45 win at Wapello High School.
“(We wanted) to get it to Finley for a three,” West Liberty head coach Matt Hoeppner said. “I think the (inbound) pass just took her a little deep. We knew (West Burlington) was going to be guarding the 3-point line … everything else tonight was executed to perfection.
“Other than some things tonight, leading up to this, that’s what got us here. We executed very well throughout the last part of the season. It was there again … (Finley) was just led a little bit too far into the defense.”
With the score tied at 45 and under 30 seconds remaining, West Burlington's Sydney Marlow drove left and put a perfectly placed bounce pass to Abbey Bence on the left block for the go-ahead score.
For the second straight season, West Liberty’s campaign ends with a defeat in the regional final.
As bitter an ending as it may seem for the Comets, back-to-back regional finals illustrate how far the program has come in the two years Hoeppner has been head coach.
Several members of the Comet senior class this season, which consisted of Janey Gingerich, Martha Pace, Lindsey Laughlin and Averi Goodale, played on varsity as freshmen when the Comets went 2-19.
West Liberty stands at 35-11 under Hoeppner.
It was the third quarter, however, that really swung momentum in West Burlington’s favor.
“(West Burlington) did a good job of turning the pressure up,” Hoeppner said. “We tried to get up (the tempo) and play the way we did in the first half, but got passive on some (Falcon defensive) switches a couple times. We upped the tempo to get back into it, but didn’t have enough rebounds on the defensive end and allowed them to get some putbacks. Between being passive (on offense) and those rebounds, it resulted in our demise.”
The Comets took a 27-18 lead into halftime, but were outscored 13-4 in the third, knotting it up at 31 apiece heading into the final frame.
West Liberty (16-5) never held a fourth-quarter lead, but tied it twice late. It couldn’t force West Burlington (21-1) into ever playing with a second-half deficit.
West Burlington found an answer each time.
Just prior to Bence’s winner, the West Liberty pressure defense forced a Falcon turnover at half-court that turned into an open layup for Comet junior Macy Daufeldt to tie it at 45.
Daufeldt led West Liberty with 18 points and eight rebounds.
Finley Hall reached double figures with 13 points and junior Sailor Hall added nine.
West Burlington’s trio of Bence, Marlow and senior Leah Collier proved too much for West Liberty.
Those three had a hand in several key plays down the stretch. Benche ended with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting and had five rebounds. Marlow had nine rebounds and eight assists to go with eight points and Collier added a dozen points with six boards.
The rest of the Falcons were kept relatively in check.
The first tie of the fourth came when Comet sophomore Finley Hall put up a 3-point attempt that fell into the arms of junior Sailor Hall, who proceeded to put it back up and in plus a foul. The 3-point play made it 43-all with a minute remaining.
West Burlington would regain the lead when Falcon freshman Logan Kelley scored her only two points of the contest on the ensuing possession.
“This team, like many around the state, handled adversity," Hoeppner said. "At the beginning of the year, we started with the “Pyramid of Winning” by John Wooden so that they could build their own paths to achieve greatness. They got to where they wanted to be.
“They were part of back-to-back regional final teams … It’ll be everything we can do to try do it again next year.”